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Saturday, May 5, 2012
Updated: May 6, 6:02 PM ET
Junior's shifting thoughts

By Ed Hinton
ESPN.com

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Yes, Dale Earnhardt Jr. thinks Sunday is his best chance to win in quite a while. But wait, there are so many variables at Talladega. Then again, he feels really confident going into the Aaron's 499. But come to think of it, maybe he'd rather break his 138-race losing streak somewhere else.

Let's just say Earnhardt was vulnerable to the power of suggestion Saturday. It was as if he was being pushed and pulled by the Talladega draft itself, shoved to the front, shuffled back, catapulted forward again … all verbally.

But at the finish line of his media conference, Earnhardt felt like a winner here, a day in advance.

He started cautiously, when asked if this just might be his week.

Dale Earnhardt Jr
Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, talks with his crew chief Steve Letarte, right, and Chad Knaus, crew chief for teammate Jimmie Johnson at Talladega. Earnhardt's and Johnson's teams share the same shop at Hendrick Motorsports.

"A lot of people have said that this weekend at the racetrack," he said. "But I don't take anything for granted. I know how this sport can be brutal and great, all at the same time."

Then he verbally stuck the nose of his car out to have a look.

"This probably is one of our better shots," he ventured, considering "how the drafting has changed [from tandem back to pack drafting] with the rule changes they [NASCAR] made before Daytona. That suits me better."

And, "As hot as it is [temperatures could be in the 90s Sunday], I think that even leans us toward pack racing more than tandem racing."

That is, NASCAR's tight restrictions on cooling systems, to discourage the two-by-two drafting fans hated, grow even more critical with the ambient heat, so drivers should favor big packs where they can pull out and breathe their radiators.

"I'm pretty sure that is kind of in my favor," Earnhardt said.

He'd verbally pulled out to have a look, so I decided to give him a big push toward the front. Here's the momentum I was packing: Earnhardt finished second in the Daytona 500, the only other restrictor-plate race thus far this season, working by himself against the dominant teammate tandem of winner Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle, whom Earnhardt slipped past for second on the last lap.

Earnhardt hated tandem drafting, and now it's back to the type at which he won four straight races and four out of five here from 2001-04. Plus, he knows his way around Talladega Superspeedway as well or better than any other active driver.

So isn't Sunday really his BEST chance to win in some time?

"I think that is probably true," he said, heading to the front in his thoughts. "When we go to Talladega or Daytona, I feel like I have a good chance of winning every time I go. … The cars don't [have to] handle. You just hold it on the mat. You just have to make good decisions.

"You really don't have to count on the other important things that you do at other tracks -- like, is the car going to roll in the center [of the corner]? Is the car going to handle good? Be fast? Those are big variables at Richmond or somewhere else [on non-plate tracks]. You don't have to deal with those here."

He accepted the push, pointing out that "Everything we did at Daytona was a top-5 -- the Shootout, we wrecked, but we ran second or third in the 125 [actually 150-mile qualifying race], and ran second in the Daytona 500."

So, "We feel confident this weekend."

Then Earnhardt was shuffled back by the words of his own teammate, Jimmie Johnson.

On Friday, I had asked Johnson whether he thought this might be Earnhardt's best chance to win lately.

"I don't," Johnson said flatly, and then spoke of the steady performances on non-plate tracks this season that have left Earnhardt second in points, only five behind Biffle.

"I think his best chance to win is on non-plate tracks, to be honest with you," Johnson said. "Here there are so many circumstances to deal with. We don't know if you are going to overheat, get the push at the right time, whatever it may be.

"What I have seen out of him, if you just look at this year alone and where he is in points and how fast his cars have been and how great he has been driving, I put this lower on the list of where I would expect him to win."

Told of that on Saturday, Earnhardt was shuffled back a bit in the mental draft here.

Jimmie Johnson I think his best chance to win is on non-plate tracks, to be honest with you. Here there are so many circumstances to deal with. We don't know if you are going to overheat, get the push at the right time, whatever it may be. What I have seen out of him, if you just look at this year alone and where he is in points and how fast his cars have been and how great he has been driving, I put this lower on the list of where I would expect him to win.

-- Jimmie Johnson

"Yeah, I maybe would feel the same way," Earnhardt shifted, "Even though pack racing definitely puts things more in your hands and you have more control of your destiny [than in tandem drafting] … there are still so many things. The cars are so equal and somebody could get the right push and a couple of guys could do the right thing at the right time and win the race. And there's nothing you can do about it. It's a lottery, really."

Then he thought of his detractors who might say of a win Sunday that it was "only" in a plate race, his specialty.

"I would love to win this race on Sunday," Earnhardt said, "but if our next win happens to come at a track where you've really got to wheel on it and get around the corner and hustle the car a lot, that would probably, personally, mean a little bit more to me, just because of the circumstances of how we haven't won in a long time.

"And I guess the critics' opinion, should we win here and break the streak, would be 'It's a plate track and go win somewhere else and prove to us really that you've got it all turned around.' I don't know. But that is kind of in the back of your mind …"

But it was when another reporter tried to shuffle Earnhardt farther back, reminding him that he hasn't won a plate race since 2004, that Earnhardt muscled back to the front in his mind.

"I feel like I know what I'm doing when I come here," he said. "I feel that if I could create the best scenario for me to come to Talladega and win a race, this is it.

"I'm driving the best cars. I feel like I understand how to get around the racetrack. When we started tandem racing, I really didn't understand that and didn't like it and didn't want to do it. And so I didn't wrap my brain around it and try to learn it as quickly as some."

And at other times since '04, "We've had some bad luck in getting caught up in wrecks, but we've always, even when those were happening, been up front and running well.

"I haven't had a race since 2004 here where I felt like I didn't know what I was doing or I was lost or making bad decisions one after the other, or that I had lost my savvy here, or my mojo."

And so Sunday, in his best shot lately, "If we do what we need to do and make the right moves, we'll be up there again trying to win."